India. The word evokes many images. A land of more than one billion people reaching from the vast Indian Ocean to the stunning Himalayas, India is awash in unparalleled color and beauty. Few locales in the world match its stimulating effect on the five senses — the exotic sights, a cacophony of sound, and exotic smells, tastes, and sensations of a vibrant place. The essence of “India” goes far beyond its exotic, and at times mystical, reputation. Its reality is far more complex that its ecologically diverse geography with dry deserts, towering peaks, and subtropical lowlands; ancient history spanning centuries of kingdoms and modern incarnation; and cultural and spiritual enclaves offer the casual eye at first glance. India is a country in the midst of change that honors its rich heritage as it establishes itself as one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing economies in the world. Millions of tourists journey to India each year to see it for themselves, drawn by the lure of Taj Mahal in Agra, the Golden Triangle, the Land of Kings, Rajasthan, Kerala, and elsewhere. Most soon discover that India is so much more than that. It is a home to countless languages, religions, and traditions — even gods. It’s impossible to absorb it all in just one visit. One must take a pilgrimage or a life-changing experience to begin to understand what India personally means.
The artisan village near Mae Chan, Thailand that my family and I visited October 24 was home to members of the Akha and Kayan Lahwi indigenous groups. Two minorities that normally did not live together had joined forces to improve their livelihoods by promoting tourism and selling handicrafts.
The Akha, who lived on the opposite side of a small creek from the Kayan Lahwi, were the first people I met. Although the “long-neck” Kayan women were the primary draw for tourists who visited by the village, the Akha were the gatekeepers who collected entrance fees and ran a small motorcycle-powered ice cream cart. The cart was an odd sight in the middle of a “traditional” village, but it revealed ingenuity as yet another way for the villagers to earn extra income.
I did not realize that different ethnic groups lived together until I went back to the Akha side of the creek and noticed that the women there looked different from the Kayan. The Akha women wore distinctive headdresses bedecked with silver circlets instead of brass coils around their necks and more formal ceremonial clothing. Women who managed the market stalls eagerly tried to sell us handicrafts as we passed on our way to the Kayan side. The men I saw manned the ticket booth and parking lot at the village entrance. Tourists tended to buy arts and crafts from the Kayan, passing by the Akha’s stalls without another thought. I conjectured that the Akha were in charge of collecting entrance fees while the Kayan drew crowds. I surmised that when the Kayan fled from Burma in the 1980s and 1990s they were invited by the Akha to live and work together in order to attract tourist dollars.
One of six major hill tribes in Thailand that include the Lahu, Karen, Hmong/Miao, Mien/Yao and Lisu, the Akha have traditionally engaged in subsistence farming in a region stretching from China to Thailand, Laos, and Burma. They have come into conflict with governments and other interests over engaging in slash-and-burn agriculture and living in areas with protected ecosystems or forestlands. During my visit, I noted that the Ahka engaged in small-scale banana and rice cultivation.
I spoke with one Akha woman about life in her village. She said in English that her two children attended a public school in Mae Chan for “a better life” and that she worked to help put them through school. She did not like living there but could not move because she did not have a permit to live elsewhere. She said that life there was not easy. I was touched by her story and wondered what, if anything, I could do for her.
Located not far from the Burmese border, the village’s main attraction was the women and girls of the Kayan Lahwi, who wore brass coils that elongated their necks. This practice has given the group renown around the world as the “long-neck” people.
Originally from Burma, many Kayan fled to Thailand in the 1980s and 1990s following conflicts with the Burmese government. Because their legal status in Thailand is reportedly still uncertain, some have capitalized on their unique cultural practice to attract tourists who pay a steep entrance fee (400 Thai baht, or about $13.50 per adult) to take photos of and with the women and to buy their handcrafts.
The Kayan women I met spent much of their time making hand-woven scarves. They willingly let tourists take photos, although some younger women looked uncomfortable. We tried to be sensitive and asked permission before taking photos. Other tourists were not so polite and snapped away. They seemed to justify their behavior based on the cost of entry. If they paid for it, they’re entitled to it, or so they thought.
The entrance fee and booths that featured the women gave the village a carnival air. Some international organizations and human rights groups have questioned the humanity of these tourist attractions and whether they exploit the indigenous. The sentiments among the Kayan themselves seemed mixed; at least as far as I could ascertain from the meager English we exchanged and body language. Some women seemed happy and content, while others were clearly uncomfortable with gawking tourists. I noticed that younger girls no more than 14 years old were more reserved. Without a doubt, these youths bear a heavy responsibility being the primary breadwinners for their families. The majority of tourists who visit come to see them.
After I lifted a sample brass coil that must have weighed five pounds, I asked one girl what it was like to wear one. She told me that it was heavy and hot. Some say that the practice of wearing coils is inhumane, although that falls into the murky debate over whether an ethnic tradition that has existed for centuries or millennia is a violation of human rights. The coils and traditional dresses made the women more noble and unforgettable with a beauty that could only be found among the Kayan. Their presence overshadowed us tourists. I imagine that tourists like me with an oversize backpack that made me look like a tortoise were a strange sight to them.
Men were almost nowhere to be seen, although I snapped a photo of a man driving a motorcycle with children playfully chasing him. The banana trees and rice fields nearby indicated that the men spend much of their time growing food.
In the end, we paid the entrance fee and bought some souvenirs, including a hand-woven scarf, in the hope that the money raised would directly benefit the Kayan. No matter their situation, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them, learn more about their culture, and take away something to remember them by.